South Africa


Education inequality narrowing, very slowly

Archive Photo: Limpopo’s top Matrics, Masithi Mikano Ndodzon and Mavhina Khuthadzo Anthel during the announcement of the Limpopo Matric results in Polokwane, on the January 4, 2019. (Photo by Gallo Images/ Sowetan/Antononio Muchave)

The 2019 matric results show that efforts to improve equality in education are succeeding, according to the government. Schools in poor areas scored strong gains and some provinces with resource constraints showed significant improvements. But the progress is nominal and challenges vast.

Policies to improve education for the poor are working, according to the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) National Senior Certificate Examination Report 2019, which provides detailed information on matric results.

In 2019, the number of schools in quintiles one to three, which are low-income areas, that achieved a matric pass rate over 80% increased from 1,961 in 2018 to 2,484 in 2019.

This confirms that the pro-poor policies of government are beginning to work,” reads the report.

Some of the strongest improvements in the 2019 matric results came from schools in low-income areas that are historically under-resourced and lag behind provinces like Gauteng and Western Cape.

Responding to the matric results, which were announced on Monday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office said “the divide between so-called ‘rich’ schools and poorer schools was steadily narrowing”.

Overall matric pass rates can be misleading. Looking at the quality of pass rates between rich and poor public schools, McFarlane said there was a steep increase in bachelor passes in quintiles one to three, with the proportion of learners in quintile one achieving bachelor passes increasing almost 10 percentage points over five years. In 2019, schools in quintiles one to three accounted for 55% of bachelor passes.

This is remarkable indeed,” said the minister.

She also said it was remarkable that Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, the country’s three most rural provinces, accounted for 45.2% of the total number of distinctions.

Observers agreed that the results show that inequalities in the education system are closing, but at a very slow rate.

Professor Lindelani Mnguni, director of Unisa’s School of Teacher Education, said, “While there are improvements, they are relatively marginal.”

He said schools in wealthier areas still significantly outperformed those in low-income areas. In 2019, 83% quintile five schools obtained pass rates of 80-100%. Only 47% of schools in quintile one to three achieved the same.

Mnguni said quintile one to three schools also showed “marginal” improvements on the other end of the spectrum. “For example, 8.16% of the quintile one schools obtained less than 40% pass rate in 2018, and in 2019 the figure was 6.78%.”

Roné McFarlane, co-head of research at Equal Education, said, “There is certainly some truth in the assertion that inequality is decreasing in the system, although it is incredibly slow and the differences in academic outcomes between rich and poor schools remain stark.”

Looking at the quality of pass rates between rich and poor public schools, McFarlane said there was a steep increase in bachelor passes in quintiles one to three, with bachelor passes increasing almost 10 percentage points in quintile one over five years.

In 2019, 55% of bachelor’s passes came from schools in quintiles one, two and three, even though learners in those schools make up over 60% of matric learners who wrote the exams,” McFarlane.

In 2019, 30% of bachelor’s passes came from quintile five schools, even though learners in quintile 5 schools comprise less than 20% of learners who wrote.”

McFarlane was cautious to compare different provinces, but said considering the throughput rate, which measures the number of students who would have started a class in Grade 2 and made it to Grade 12 (in 2019 only around 42% of students who began in 2008 passed matric in 2019), “rural provinces still lag far behind”.

The basic education minister said the DBE had prioritised interventions to improve the quality of education and observers agreed such interventions may have contributed to the marginal but steady improvements in providing equal education.

Professor Sarah Gravett, dean of the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Education, said the country’s departments of education and NGOs had led targeted interventions at low-performing schools, including extra holiday lessons, and the 2019 cohort of students received up to 160 hours of extra tuition.

Mnguni said successful interventions show that programmes need to be customised to specific provinces and districts. He said Gauteng focused on modernising classrooms and improving infrastructure while Free State had focused on ensuring students attend school, improving extramural activities and providing basic needs such as food.

The different approaches worked in each province because they catered for local contexts.

The continuity of the CAPS curriculum and slow improvements in delivering learning materials also appeared to have played a part in the improvements in poorer schools.

The curriculum is now eight years old, and naturally teachers have a better understanding of what is expected of them,” said Mnguni.

Education experts point to a wide range of measures to maintain and accelerate the provision of quality education in low-income areas. Some can be introduced immediately; others require societal change.

In the short term, targeted interventions must continue.

McFarlane said education departments must improve school infrastructure to eradicate unsafe learning conditions, provide an adequate supply of classrooms and qualified teachers, and ensure schools have basic services such as electricity and water.

The DBE has recently emphasised the need to implement early childhood development (ECD) programmes. Every educational expert Daily Maverick spoke to mentioned the need to improve the quality of primary school education.

Associate Professor Nicky Roberts from UJ said: “The talk of building from the bottom must now translate into action. We want to see evidence of social and education expenditure per learner from conception to 18 years old. The resourcing is needed earlier on in the system, and the quality of Grade R, and status of Grade R practitioners must now be evident in the budgets. It will still be slow while DBE takes on ECD as a function, but that is what we need.”

Dr Nic Spaull, a senior researcher in the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) group in the economics department at Stellenbosch University, said: “What’s clear is that we will not be able to make real progress in the sector unless the foundations for learning in the first few years of primary school improve, and specifically reading for meaning by age 10.

That’s only possible if we can offer our existing and prospective teachers meaningful learning opportunities to improve their teaching. Currently we don’t have many of these available to primary school teachers.”

There are no quick fixes. While President Ramaphosa sees the educational divide narrowing, education between the rich and poor is also linked to the country’s vast inequalities and broader socio-economic challenges.

Professor Ruksana Osman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand, said, “Closing the divide will require more then closing the educational divide. It’s about sustaining the outcomes for students in these schools but also at strengthening the trajectory into the workplace. So in other words closing the economic divide and the social divides.” DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options